Cover letters are a challenge to write for two reasons. The first being that we rarely write letters anymore. Quick emails, messages, and comments are crafted, drafted, and sent by the dozens. But complete letters with full paragraphs and formal sign offs? It’s been a while. How long should a cover letter be in a world of short-form communication?
The second reason is that it’s not that easy to write about yourself. A cover letter is essentially your pitch to a company about why they should hire you. It should eloquently express your background, your achievements, and your intention for the available position.
Cover letters are a tricky step in the job application process. For some companies, they hold a lot of weight, while others don’t even mention them.
(Although unless specifically stated not to send one, including a cover letter with your job application is highly recommended. Only 26% of recruiters didn’t consider cover letters important in their hiring decisions, according to Jobvite’s “Job Seeker Nation Study.”)
Whether it’s required or volunteered, a cover letter is where you can show a bit more of who you are. Outside the rigid templates of a resumé, this is a space to write freely and on a more personal level. Now, the question is, how much should you write?
How Long Should a Cover Letter Be?
To answer the question “how long should a cover letter be,” it helps to think of who will be reading your cover letter. It may be a hiring manager making his way through a pile of applications, or a team head intent on finding the right member, but also quite busy with her daily tasks.
Employers only have a limited time to read your cover letter. Make the most of their time by keeping your letter concise, but compelling enough to grab their interest and invite you in for an interview.
You should be able to do this in within half a page to one full page — if you’re counting, that’s 3-4 paragraphs and about 250-400 words. Any longer may come across as unfocused, lead to rambling, or worse, simply be too long for someone to read.
Choose a font that’s simple and easy to read, such as Arial, Franklin Gothic, Georgia, Garamond, Verdana, or Times New Roman, and use a legible font size, anywhere from 10-12 point font. Use that font and font size in the entire cover, as well as in your resumé. Make sure to keep your text left-aligned and place one-inch margins all around the page.
Tips for Writing a Cover Letter
You know how much to write, and you know what format to write it in. Still staring at a blank page? The following tips can help you craft a cover letter with the right length and information to increase your odds of being hired.
Include specific and relevant information. What makes you the most qualified candidate for the position? This is what the employer is asking as they read your cover letter. Answer this in a way that both impresses and piques their interest to know more about you. Start with a brief introduction and background, noting any key points in your work history. Then, follow this by highlighting a work experience you’ve had that’s relevant to the job (it helps to revisit the description and requirements for clues). Describe the context, what you did, and the achievements and contributions you made.
Don’t overshare. A cover letter is intended to be the gateway to landing an interview — not the entire interview itself. Refrain from writing down every single relevant skill you’re bringing to the company. Instead, explain how you’ve helped past clients and select your proudest accomplishments to best catch the employer’s eye. If it helps, consider having a family member or friend help proofread and edit out a few details. A cover letter should be just an overview, not an overshare.
Keep things short and simple. Just like all good writing, it’s best to focus each paragraph around one main idea. To do this, start with a strong topic sentence. Then add some short descriptions to support that idea. Finally, conclude the paragraph with an attention-grabbing closing thought.
Write with white space. White space, or negative space, is simply the space without any content — the margins, between the paragraphs, etc. It’s an element of design composition used to break up chunks of text and make things easier to read. Apply this to your cover letter by creating shorter paragraphs and adding a blank line in between, as well as setting generous margins on each side of the page. Giving your cover letter a lot of white space will make it look more elegant and enjoyable to read.
Don’t get caught up in the metrics. Unless specified, an employer won’t be checking the specific word count of your cover letter. More important than cover letter length is content — focus on saying what you want to say clearly and concisely, and use word count just to check if you’re on the right track.
Cover Letter Format
The contents of a cover letter include all the basic information needed in most standard letters (i.e., a salutation, introduction, signature), as well as a few specifics for the job. A complete cover letter should have the following sections:
1. Heading: This section provides all your contact information, including your full name, address, city, state, zip code, phone number, and email address. Adding the employer’s information is optional, and usually includes their full name and job title (if you know who will be reading it), company name, address, city, state, and zip code. The date of submission is also placed at the top of the page.
2. Salutation: Ideally, you want to address a letter to its intended recipient — a hiring manager, department head, etc. But if you can’t find their exact name in their job description or website, you can use a generic greeting (i.e., Dear Hiring Manager, Dear Marketing Manager). It’s best not to make any assumptions about the recipient’s marital status, so refrain from using titles, such as “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Ms.,” and stick with their first or full names.
3. Introductory paragraph: Now is the time to introduce yourself. Use this first paragraph to share your name, the position you’re applying for, and how you found out about the position (a friend, a colleague, a job posting). Try to include something that will grab the reader’s attention, and use this as a segue as to why you’re the best candidate for the position.
4. Qualifications (second and third paragraph): These 2-3 paragraphs are the meat of the matter, and where you can start to share a little more about yourself. Don’t just reiterate what’s in your resumé, however — the employer will be reading that, as well. Instead, explain how these achievements and experiences make you a great fit for the company. Connect what you’ve done to what you can do for them.
5. Closing: Now, it’s time to bring everything to your final point. Thank the employer for their time and consideration, reiterate why they should hire you, and close with a compelling call to action, such as an invitation for an interview or any follow-up information.
6. Signature: Choose a salutation that suits you (i.e., Best regards, Sincerely, Thank you) and sign off with your name.
Notes for Email Cover Letters
If you’re sending your cover letter through email, you may want to trim it down even further. Most people will read the first paragraph and skim over the rest of the message. Keep your cover letter to two paragraphs — an introduction and a description of your qualifications. Your contact information, which is usually in the heading, can go below your signature.
Emails also require a subject line, which should typically be used to state the position you’re applying for and your name (i.e., “Marketing Associate – John Doe”).
You’ve Got It Covered
Cover letters are an opportunity for you to share a little bit about yourself. The best way to do this is through a few short, well-written paragraphs that detail what you’ve done and what you can do for them, and get them interested enough to know more.
Once you’ve narrowed down a few potential job postings you’re interested in, match these with your best, most relevant work experiences, and get to writing.